Sentenced to 15 years in prison for mailing codeine and Valium out of the country, Johanne Vinther Axelsen says her son told her the shipments were legal – but doesn’t blame him
Johanne Vinther Axelsen, who has been sentenced to 15 years for drug trafficking, outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on January 16.
BEHIND the green bars of the visiting area in Prey Sar prison sits its only female Western inmate, 55-year-old Johanne Vinther Axelsen from Denmark. She says she came to Cambodia to visit her son and planned to stay for one year. On January 16, however, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined US$7,500 for trying to mail about 10,000 codeine and Valium tablets from Cambodia to the United States and the United Kingdom.
In prison, Axelsen shares a five-by-15-metre cell with 40 other inmates. The toilet is a squatter in the corner, and the only water in the cell comes from a trough. All the women sleep on plastic mats on the concrete floor. Each prisoner is given a private space 50 centimetres wide and two meters long for herself, her mosquito net and her belongings.
Back home in Denmark, Axelsen received government aid because she was unable to hold down a job because of a personality disorder and social phobia, she said. Now, her mental problems are causing her grief in prison.
"It is not easy because sometimes I raise my voice too much and the other inmates threathen to beat me," she said. "I just have to go sit in my mosquito net and read a book to get away from all the people."
She pays a fellow inmate $70 a month to cook food that other inmates bring from outside the prison.
"There is no proper food and no clean water. So if you do not have any money in here, you can't survive because you will fall ill," she said.
Her son, Niels Eikeland, 28, received the same sentence, though he was not present in court. He has been absent from court proceedings since a hearing on January 8. Axelsen's version of events suggests Eikeland is more culpable than his mother.
In 2003, Eikeland was convicted in Denmark of stealing art from a museum and was sentenced to one year in prison. He moved to Cambodia after his release to pursue a career in kick boxing. He also began dealing drugs.
Posts made in a discussion forum of the website www.drugbuyers.com for people looking to buy hard-to-get substances assert that Eikeland was behind a website for an online pharmacy advertising morphine, codeine and Valium sent from Cambodia. Customers, however, were not always happy with his business style, calling him a "scammer" because he rarely delivered the promised goods. When he did, they said, the medicine arrived packed in toys and spraycans. The website was taken down in 2007 "due to security reasons", but Eikeland apparently did not quit selling drugs.
Shortly after his mother arrived in the country, Niels Eikeland asked her to help pack pills for shipment. Axelsen claimed that she knew nothing about her son's business prior to coming to Cambodia, adding that she suspected no foul play when her son asked her to help.
IF YOU DO NOT HAVE ANY MONEY IN HERE, YOU CAN’T SURVIVE BECAUSE YOU WILL FALL ILL.
"Of course I asked him what kind of pills it was and whether it was legal," she said. "I did not want to get in trouble when I had travelled all this way to see him and have a good time."
She said she believed her son when he told her that Valium and codeine were over-the-counter drugs in Cambodia and that it would not be illegal to mail them out of the country.
In addition to packing them, Axelsen also took the pills to the post office to mail them out of the country. She was arrested outside Wat Phnom post office on April 11, 2008, after post office staff intercepted some of the packages and turned them over to police.
"I was very surprised," Axelsen said. "I think now that I have been naive. I had never imagined being arrested and sent to prison. I did it to help my son because I thought he had finally found his right track in life, but I guess I was wrong."
A corrupt court?
To cover for her son, she told police at the time of her arrest that she was working for a Swede, but later in court she told the truth.
In an interview at the time of her sentencing, Axelsen said a private Cambodian lawyer had told her that she would be released if she paid US$20,000.
"But I refuse to pay any money to the corrupt court officials, who will use the money to buy a luxury house and car," she said.
She denounced the trial as "unfair", adding that she had "decided not to pay even one dollar" to the court.
"I am not a drug smuggler, just a medicine seller," she said.
Tom Barthel Hansen, head of the Representative Office of Denmark in Cambodia, expressed surprise at the terms of the sentence and said his office was exploring possibilities for an appeal.
"We expected a much smaller sentence based on a talk with her lawyer," he said.
Axelsen said she had heard very little from her son since she was arrested but added that she accepted responsibility for what happened.
"I don't blame him for anything," she said. "I was naive. Blood is thicker than water. Now, all I can do is hope he is well and that we both can get out of this mess."
Axelsen said she wants to appeal the court ruling. In the meantime, she remains hopeful.
"I'm a very optimistic person. I keep my spirits high," she said. "Without hope, there can be no future."